Telling Tales by Patience Agbabi

16th May 2014

Patience Agbabi’s latest collection, Telling Tales, has transplanted the original pilgrims’ stories into deepest darkest modernity, replete with “Street Talk, Sweet Talk and Melodies.”

“Get me a pint of Southwark piss, It all took place in a pub like this.” How many students might be more inclined to fall in love with Chaucer, if this were how the Canterbury Tales actually began?

The Old Kent Road, Dartford and Gravesend form the backdrop to “this Routemaster bus,” as bound for Canterbury Cathedral as it was in 1395. “Track by track, here’s the remix… On the stage, on the page.”

Telling Tales is a wonderfully pacy, energetic revitalization. Patience Agbabi captures the riotous tall tales of Chaucer’s imagination, and breathes fresh life into an already pulsing narrative.

They are so different, and yet so similar to the originals: “I’m just eighteen and newly wed / My husband’s old and crap in bed,” crows Robyn Miller, the re-imagined protagonist of The Miller’s Tale. Agbabi’s author biographies, provided at the end, add to the sense of multiple voices coming together to share often hilarious life experience.

The Old Kent Road, Dartford and Gravesend form the backdrop to “this Routemaster bus,” as bound for Canterbury Cathedral as it was in 1395.The poems reflect Agbabi’s commitment to the spoken word, to gender and racial identity: what better medium to express these comments than through a selection of tales well-known for their scope, and diversity of voice?

Everyone’s favourite Wife of Bath, or Mrs Alice Ebi Bafa as she’s known here, asks ‘What Do Women Like Bes’?’ and declares that “I am not a feminax”. Agbabi evidently takes great pleasure in sort, sharp rhymes which mirror Chaucer’s intention, “he wanted ten children to pass my hip / but I learnt how to wield de whip.”

The tales’ original mediator, Harry Bailey, is still running Southwark’s Tabard Inn, still grappling with the “subspecies of suburbia” – though now in the form of gatecrashers, house parties, hashtags, boob jobs and the likes of the Nun’s Priest, “Mozilla Firefox”:

“Used to daydream about him. Freud says there’s only two kinds of dreams, daydreams and wet dreams. You never knew that, did you? They don’t call me Mozilla Firefox for nothin’.”

Each, thoroughly-researched, poem draws on the skeletons of a work universally considered to be a major force in the literary canon.

What’s so refreshing here is the combination of old and new, a woman’s voice rewriting an echo from history, the amplification of themes that can often be lost amidst Middle English, but which have now been so wonderfully re-worked:

“The mic is roving
Passed like a baton
Til it gets spat on.”